It’s imperative that architecture doesn’t become an occupation only available to the wealthy elite

Sarah Richardson

When it comes to highlighting a lack of diversity in construction, of all of the industry’s specialisms, the architectural profession is probably the one most likely to escape the spotlight.

The reason for this is as starkly apparent as Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman’s controversial pink (or magenta) “Woman to Woman” election battle bus, launched this week with the hope of encouraging female voters to the polls.

Diversity in its most outwardly obvious forms - gender and ethnicity - is more evident in architecture than in contracting or trades. To be clear, it is nowhere near evident enough - approximately just 15% of chartered architects are female. But the fact that you can visit a practice’s office and not be surprised to see a few dozen female or non-white workers, means that the profession feels as if it is making progress towards inclusiveness, and it is noticeably ahead of the sadly low industry averages.

However, the problems architecture is facing with diversity in a more holistic sense were brought into focus by a RIBA Appointments survey last week. This highlighted the concerns of employers over rising course fees, which have spiralled more than other university subjects with raised tuition fees due to the seven-year study period required. It also exposed the fact that - even after laying out around £50,000 in fees alone - most students emerge ill-equipped for the world of work - with all that implies for their short- to medium-term salary prospects.

The net effect of all this is a growing fear that architecture is in danger of becoming the preserve of a wealthy elite. For a profession whose purpose it is to design buildings that meet the needs of the broad society that makes up 21st century Britain, the inherent dangers in this are obvious.

These barriers to entry are also in danger of sending architecture backwards in respect of the gender and ethnic diversity which it has started to address. With the length of time it takes to earn a salary comparable to other professions, women who do not come from a financially advantaged background and think they may at some point want to take time off to have children may understandably question the logic of pursuing a career in which it takes them so long to progress.

Meanwhile, the cost of tuition over such a lengthy period is likely to be even more of a barrier to BME groups than white counterparts, based on statistics on the disparity of household wealth between ethnic groups in the UK.

Detailed research published in 2010 by the Institute of Education at the University of London found that in the UK nearly 75% of seven-year-old Pakistani and Bangladeshi children, and 50% of black children of the same age, were classed as living in poverty. This compared with around 25% of white seven-year-olds.
The hugely uphill battle many of these young people would face to pursue a career in architecture is clearly damaging to a society that seeks to create equal opportunity for all. But it is also very damaging to a profession which, by virtue of the fact it creates buildings that provide for a diverse community, would benefit from counting that diversity within its ranks.

And architecture’s problem is a problem for the wider construction industry, too. With the profession currently faring better for attracting women and minority ethnic groups than much of the sector, it is improving the image of the industry as a whole to those from the outside looking in and trying to work out whether construction offers an environment that they would feel comfortable working in. Take this away, and you increase an already difficult struggle for the rest of a sector to compete for the best talent, regardless of background.

The RIBA is working to address some of architectural education’s issues, as we explore on page 20. For the future of the profession, and the health of the wider sector, it is to be hoped this change does happen, and quickly.

Sarah Richardson, editor